Suggest that there must be another, less-punishing way to organize the week and you hear self-congratulatory speeches about putting the show on at all. “Look,” Downey says, “you get a bunch of Swiss engineers to map out our show, describe to them what’s involved, what needs to be written, designed, built, painted, scored, blocked, shot, rehearsed, mounted, and then trimmed, reconfigured, noted, and put back on its feet—they go, ‘Okay, you’re describing a twelve-day process, maybe ten.’ And we go, ‘Jeez, that’s too bad, ’cause we have to do it in six.’ So you just do it, and it involves incredibly long hours for everyone.”
In the old days—even as recently as four years ago—this college-all-nighter culture worked because talented writers could rewrite sketches on their own. But since bulwarks such as Robert Smigel, Jack Handey, and Bonnie and Terry Turner began quitting, Downey has been forced to do more repair work during the group rewrite. The Thursday-night session is a brain-numbing test of endurance, punctuated by moments of giddiness and frequent deliveries of mountains of food. Writers drift in and out, languorously. There are seventeen writers on the payroll, but even that’s not enough—alumni Andy Breckman, Bob Odenkirk, Smigel, and Handey have been called in regularly to prop up the staff writers, and NBC is leaning on Handey to return full-time.
At the moment, ten writers are perched around the table, but only four speak up regularly: Al Franken, 43, a holdover from the early years; Ian Maxtone-Graham, 35, a preppy triathlete in his third season at SNL; Fred Wolf, a skeletal stand-up comic and former Chevy Chase Show writer in his thirties whose jokes usually involve Satan or spewing bodily fluids; and Downey. Downey commonly works 80 hours a week. Now his eyes are puffy from a catnap on his office couch, and his graying hair is disheveled to the point where it might as well have been attached in random hunks.
Also staring at the script and tossing in a suggestion every 30 minutes or so are Lewis Morton, 24, and Steve Lookner, 23, both in their second year at SNL, and both graduates of the Harvard Lampoon. The Lampoon has been a bountiful source of SNL talent from the start, when Doug Kenney, a founder of the National Lampoon and a Michaels consultant early on, paved the way for fellow ’Poonster Downey to get a job at SNL. At the other end of the table are two rookie writers who go hours without making a sound: Brian Kelley, 22, and also a ’Poonie, and Margo Meyer, 29. There’s also Norm Hiscock, 33, who was, until a year ago, head writer for Kids in the Hall, the Canadian sketch-comedy ensemble executive-produced by Michaels. Hiscock smiles gamely at his new colleagues, but as the night drags on, the grin can’t disguise his growing bewilderment.
An ex–SNL writer who stopped by recently was stupefied. “I see Norm, who ran Kids in the Hall, sitting silently for eight hours, not saying a word because it’s not worth it to him—he knows these sketches are beyond repair. What a waste!”
Pale, overwhelmingly male, and raised on comic books, the main writers are very short on experience in the world beyond pop culture. The most productive young writer, David Mandel, 24, still lives at home with his family. Mandel grew up worshiping the show, collecting old SNL scripts and memorabilia at bookstores, and memorizing dozens of sketches. He went on to Harvard, where he says he devoted more time to the Lampoon than to his academic work.
“There’s only one writer who didn’t go to Harvard or Yale or Cornell or Brown,” Ellen Cleghorne says, overstating the case only slightly. “There’s no black writers on the show—this is 1995, and I feel like I’m in a really bad sci-fi movie where all the black people already got killed, and I’m next. I’m not a separatist, I’d like to be able to jam with somebody who’s had the same experiences I find funny.”
Certain subjects—TV game shows, violent beatings, gay sex—come up again and again. In addition to the recent alien-anal-probe number, there was “Gay Stripper Theater” and a bit where Farley went to a gay bar and caught anal warts from Sandler. “They love the anal sex here,” Garofalo says. “That’s considered incredibly funny.”
Bonnie and Terry Turner, the husband-and-wife writing team from Atlanta who scored big at SNL working on “Wayne’s World” and Church Lady sketches, watch the show now and marvel at how its interests have shrunk. “They write less about relationships,” Bonnie says. “Unless the relationship is between a man and his shoe, rather than actual people.”